|The river-and-sea promise is eternal. A cargo ship navigates the Sugandha River.|
“The promise of river-and-sea is eternal – always loyal. Yet as the world has changed so the advantage of Jhalokati’s trading geography is lessened. Evidence of past commercial success isn’t difficult to find.
Along the town’s waterfront are godowns and stately homes with a story to tell. In Nalchity Bazar lies the century-old grave of a Chinese businesswoman. There’s the engineering feat of the Gabkhan Channel to admire.
The future is less certain but trade is likely to continue to play a role of significance in the life of the district and town of river-sea memory.”
We don’t know much but we can assume there was a boat. Even today Nalchity Bazar in Jhalokati District is most accessible by local ferry across the broad Sugandha – the Fragrant River. Besides, she’d come from some distance around a century ago and there was certainly no aeroplane to account for that.
|View from the Gabkhan Bridge, Jhalokati.|
|The century old grave of a Chinese businesswoman.|
|Barge navigating the Gabkhan Channel.|
2. From the village road alongside the Gabkhan Channel not far from Jhalokati town even today there are boats to be seen – large cargo ships and a low-lying barge with some kind of goods beneath its black tarpaulin. Two small-engine ferries are chugging passengers towards the town side; the steamers plying the route from Dhaka to Bagerhat pass that way.
|Jhalokati held the promise of being a new Kolkata.|
And besides, it’d all happened once before, hadn’t it? It was on the bank of the altogether less suitable Hooghly that the behemoth of trade had once arisen – Kolkata.
The 1981 Government Gazetteer for Bakerganj District which included Jhalokati notes that Bakerganj was a great exporting district in the second half of the eighteenth century, with boats arriving from all parts of Bangladesh to purchase rice in particular.
“The superior quality Bakerganj rice used to be exported to Calcutta which was facilitated by easy river communication in comparison with other districts. Rice was selling at 17 seers a rupee for best rice and 21 seers a rupee for common rice at Barisal in 1875.”
|The only automatic rice mill in the region used to be here.|
It is said the factory siren could be heard from as far away as Barisal.
But in 1975 the factory went bankrupt and the site is barely recognisable – it’s a parcel of open land hosting a few families of squatters.
By the riverfront in town meanwhile, are the ghats and godowns, which are still used. The laneways beyond are littered with car-tyred trolleys for ship unloading – on a Friday the scene is draped in an eerie quiet, as though symbolising the passing of a much busier trading era. There are decorative mercantile-looking villas, most often wanting a little attention.
|Laneway near Jhalokati's waterfront|
|Captain and boat engineer Dalilur Rahman with his ship that brings salt to Jhalokati.|
3. Boat engineer Dalilur Rahman’s voyages are not at an end. He travels to and from Kutubdia Island near Cox’s Bazar three times each month bringing salt aboard his locally crafted vessel. It’s a 3,200 maund cargo when full and profit runs at 15 – 20,000 taka per trip.
|Speaking of the peril of pirates.|
|"10-foot waves in Boishaki"|
The journey’s principal peril is pirates, Rahman says, and the sometimes ten-foot waves in the Boishakhi month. He’s been robbed three times in his twenty-five year shipping career.
|Unloading salt in West Jhalokati.|
But the salt trade isn’t as straightforward as it once was.
|A salt mill in on the banks of the Bashanda in West Jhalokati.|
|Carrying salt into the mill.|
We used to supply North Bengal and the Khulna belt but now there is an ultra-modern mill in Khulna. They’ve installed an electric machine imported from India and can whiten the salt using gas, which consumers like. It’s not possible here at present.”
|Salt production in West Jhalokati.|
“The future is in industrial salt,” he says, “used in medicines and leather processing.” It doesn’t need the fine, white texture of its domestic cousin.
Besides, for all the value of the Gabkhan Bridge, Jhalokati still takes the advantage of river-and-sea.
“It costs 60 poisa per kilogram to transport flour from Chittagong by boat,” Salak says by way of example, “By road the cost is 1.5 taka.”
|In the salt mill.|
|The Chinese grave in Nalchity Bazar|
5. Meanwhile across the Sugandha in Nalchity Bazar the locals are quick to gather around her grave, eager to share knowledge of the Chinese woman, N. She’s clearly been the subject of many hours of adda – there can be few places in the world where local heritage is the source of such curiosity, as it is in Bangladesh.
|It looks like a Bangla 'Na' and perhaps a Chinese character|
|Worth its weight in salt!|
|The Gabkhan Channel is part of Jhalokati's trading geography.|
Arafin considers she might’ve traded woven mats, the quality shitolpati for which Jhalokati is renowned, perhaps clothes or other handicrafts – sending goods to Kolkata.
|Taking a break at a salt mill.|
|The quiet of a Friday near the Jhalokati ghats.|
6. The busiest years of flourishing trade in Jhalokati might have gone. The town might have exchanged its haggle-and-bustle cloak of yesteryear for a more understated and sedate mode of dress. Yet the promise of river-and-sea remains and for Jhalokati District trade will no doubt continue to be a welcome companion.
|Salt mill doors, West Jhalokati.|
|Counting sticks to tally sacks of salt.|
|House in Jhalokati.|
|Stevedore Habib tries out the Village Flute.|
This article published in Star Magazine here: The Promise of River and Sea